Clybourne Park has already taken the English-speaking theatrical world by storm, winning major awards and praise in New York, London, Los Angeles and Chicago. Now, just six days after it closed on Broadway, Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s tremendous production opened Saturday, giving local audiences a chance to see what may be the best American play so far in this young century.
Bruce Norris’ savagely funny story is built around the Chicago house Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun characters were set to move into at the end of that incredible play. Its first act is in 1959, days before that move occurs; the second stanza unfolds 50 years later. In both, the different ways people often speak to one another – even in the same household – and their inability, or unwillingness, to understand each other are on telling display.
Director René D. Copeland saw the show in Chicago and understands its possibilities and challenges, particularly when it comes to the conceit of using the same actors to play different characters in each act (like Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, which Copeland has also directed). She has assembled a cast that handles the humor, and the dark undercurrent beneath the laughs, with sharply rendered portrayals.
In the first act Bev (Shelean Newman) and Russ (Derek Whittaker) are about to leave a home and community that have become a dysfunctional Hell for them after the death of their son Kenneth (a poignant cameo by Steve Parnell). Karl (Nate Eppler), the only character who appears in Hansberry’s play as well, has found out the home will be sold to an African-American family, and the officious neighborhood representative arrives with his expectant wife Betsy (Shannon Hoppe) to convince Bev and Russ to reconsider. His racism, aided and abetted by a young clergyman (Eric D. Pasto-Crosby), is on odious display, but Russ’ profane response is dictated more by his own repulsion for a community that has essentially ostracized his nerve-wracked wife and him.
In the second act, young up-and-comers Steve (Eppler) and Lindsey (Hoppe) have bought the now run-down house and are planning to level it for one of the “McMansion” dwellings favored by their set. Lena (Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva), who bears the name of Hansberry’s Raisin matriarch as that character’s great-niece, is concerned that Clybourne Park’s historical character will be ruined by the questionable taste of newcomers like Steve and Lindsey. She and husband Kevin (Tony Morton) meet the couple along with their respective attorneys (Pasto-Crosby and Newman) for a discussion that quickly goes from civil chat to vicious verbal warfare. Despite occurring five decades after the first act, this contemporary donnybrook serves as Norris’ reminder to us of the old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
All of the cast are wonderful to watch. Whitcomb-Oliva and Morton also play a working-class maid and her husband in the first act, and the distinctions between those characters and the resolutely middle-class couple they play later are clearly etched. That smooth performance transitioning is true in the work done by their colleagues as well: contrasting Eppler and Pasto-Crosby’s nauseously condescending characters in the first movement with their more outwardly pleasant but no less unlikable roles in the second is part of the enjoyment found among other pleasures in this show.
Hoppe is as usual a master of timing and reaction. As an actor she has the precision of a fine Swiss timepiece coupled with graceful artistry. If I’m a homer for making such statements, forgive me, but she is one of many examples that point to the conclusion that Nashville now has a cadre of actors who can more than hold their own with performers in any major city one cares to name.
And now to Whittaker and Newman: With no apologies to Shakespeare, they both bestride the world like a colossus in Act I. Whittaker fills his Russ with such palpable anger and grief that his slowly building eruption is gripping beyond description in this review. And his game handling of a mustache malfunction early in Act II was a professional primer on how to properly cover an unexpected moment that often accompanies live theater – don’t drop the ball, just keep going.
Newman’s perky-barely-hides-the-pain Bev may be her best work in a career of amazing variety and ingenuity (her transition to the self-involved attorney Kathy was a nice bit of work too). I have known Newman for several years, and even once had the privilege of working with her, so I feel qualified to make that statement. This classy and kind artist has a deep reservoir of talent that is on extraordinary display in this show.
Gary C. Hoff’s oak-laden set undergoes a makeover from desirable to dilapidated home that shows off not only his talents but the abilities of the more-than-capable crew. Trish Clark’s costumes are as ever spot-on, as are Phillip Franck’s lights and Paul Carrol Binkley’s sound. The consistent high quality of the troupe’s artisans is one of the prime reasons Tennessee Rep is as artistically strong now as it has ever been in its nearly three-decade history.
There is no doubt that Clybourne Park is a brilliant play. What brings that brilliance to life, though, is the abundance of talent on and off the Johnson Theater stage that Tennessee Repertory Theatre provides.
Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of Clybourne Park continues through Sept. 22 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 15 and 22. Tickets (starting at $42.50; tickets for students with valid ID begin at $11.50 with some restrictions) and information are available by calling (615) 782-4040 or visiting www.tennesseerep.org.
*Photos by Shane Burkeen courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.